Television critics started compiling year-end top-10 lists back when there were only three networks. Aren’t longer lists called for by now? Allow me to break with time-honored tradition by offering my choices for the twelve best series of the year, plus eight very deserving runners-up.
“Downton Abbey” (PBS) – I never thought I’d see the day when I would pick a crunchy gravel drama as the Program of the Year. But, improbable as it may seem, this Masterpiece Theatre mini-series was the only true scripted TV phenomenon of 2011. I knew it belonged at the top of this list just a few weeks ago when I attended a public screening of the season two premiere and witnessed hundreds of people of all ages bursting into thunderous applause during a scene in which two lovelorn characters finally kissed. (When was the last time that happened in a movie theater?) Season two begins on Sunday, Jan. 8. Expect to see it on next year’s list.
“Breaking Bad” (AMC) – One of those rare remarkable shows that truly improve as they get older, “Breaking Bad” is my choice for the best returning dramatic series of 2011. I won’t be surprised if Bryan Cranston takes home a fourth Emmy next September for his uniquely powerful portrayal of mild-mannered chemistry teacher and ailing family man turned dangerously narcissistic meth dealer Walter White. Cranston’s brilliance was more than matched by his co-stars: Aaron Paul as Walter’s painfully messed-up partner Jesse Pinkman, Anna Gunn as his grievously conflicted wife Skyler, RJ Mitte as his loving son Walt Jr. -- and especially Giancarlo Esposito as lethal drug lord Gustavo Fring.
“Friday Night Lights” (DirecTV/NBC) – The final few episodes of this quietly powerful series reminded us why we fell in love with it at first sight five years ago. I know people who wouldn’t watch the series finale for several weeks after it was telecast because they couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the residents of Dillon, Texas. Television is something less without them.
“Justified” (FX) – There was huge fun to be had watching Timothy Olyphant’s smart-alecky Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens go toe to toe with Margo Martindale’s unforgettable pot-farming mountain woman Mags Bennett. (Apple pie, anyone?) If only they had kept her around for a second season. Really, why the rush to end her?
“The Middle” (ABC) – I suppose “Modern Family” should be sitting in this space, but the truth is it doesn’t need any more acclaim, while “The Middle” -- television’s second best comedy about a contemporary family and a far more realistic take on the way most people live -- needs all the help it can get. I’m happy to oblige.
“Game of Thrones” (HBO) – Like Syfy’s “Battlestar Galactica” before it, HBO’s grand adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s ferocious epic fantasy defied categorization as a mere television series. Every minute of every episode delivered in spectacular fashion, right up to that unforgettable final image of Daenerys and the baby dragons.
“Louie” (FX) – Comedian Louis C.K.’s modest little comedy series evolved in its second season from a bitingly funny show about a divorced dad in New York City to a painfully accurate meditation on human vulnerability and the emotional frailty of mid-life. Louie’s trip to Afghanistan with a baby duck was as profound a character study as anything I saw on television this year.
“The Good Wife” (CBS) – Broadcast’s best show continues to prove that the networks can indeed create compelling drama series for grownups that can stand alongside the best efforts of their basic- and pay-cable competitors. What a shame that CBS chose to move it to one of the worst time periods on its schedule for a serialized drama, at least during the fall season.
“Homeland” (Showtime) – Claire Danes and Damian Lewis gave two of the greatest performances of the year -- as a bipolar CIA agent and an increasingly suspicious former POW with seemingly terrorist tendencies, respectively -- in Showtime’s consistently surprising thriller. Friends with firsthand knowledge of such things tell me that everything about this show is as phony baloney as it gets, but there is no denying its power as sizzling, edge -of –your-seat entertainment.
“Doctor Who” (BBC America) – Its stories may be increasingly fantastical, but this long-running science-fiction franchise still delivers sequences of unsurpassed emotional intimacy. Doubters need only watch the closing scene from the recent “Doctor Who” Christmas special to understand what I mean. It may have been the loveliest moment in any television series last year.
“Sons of Anarchy” (FX) – Nothing kills an established show faster than risky creative changes that alter its characters and change its narrative foundation to such an extent that it becomes something completely new. So let’s give all the credit we can to “Sons of Anarchy” creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter, a man with bigger balls than any other show-runner in the business. He changed every single significant character on his canvas in surprising ways that made perfect sense and left us breathless with anticipation for the show’s fifth season.
“The Walking Dead” (AMC) – Pay no attention to those bellyaching bloggers who thought the first few episodes of this show’s second season were too ponderous. “The Walking Dead” remained a marvel of unrelenting tension throughout its fall run, culminating in an unshakable mid-season finale that was so perfectly realized on all fronts that it became a thing of cinematic beauty. It also remained consistently scary and nerve-frying, qualities that FX’s disappointing “American Horror Story” lost by its third episode.
Runners-Up: ABC’s “Modern Family,” CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” Fox’s “Raising Hope,” FX’s “Archer” and “Rescue Me,” TNT’s “The Closer” and HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Boardwalk Empire.”